In the aftermath of the Ravens' latest loss to another seemingly unworthy opponent, coach John Harbaugh was asked whether there might be a psychological component to the team's apparent inability to make the most of their most winnable games.
"I'm not a psychologist,'' he replied. "I think what you do is look at football. You look at what you can do better as a football team. So, we're moving forward."
That was the right answer … after the Ravens followed up their blowout win over the Steelers with a deflating loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 2. It might still have flown after the Monday Night loss to the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 7. But the third time definitely is cause to wonder just what's going on inside all those helmets.
Nobody has to remind you that the Ravens are an impressive 4-0 against their AFC opponents that have been projected to reach the playoffs this season. They are 2-3 against everybody else, and that would be 1-4 if they hadn't made a great escape against the Arizona Cardinals in their most recent home game.
If you're prone to goofy optimism, I guess you could take heart in the fact that they aren't likely to run into any of those lesser teams in the postseason (except maybe the Titans), and you have every right to fall back on the happy reality that the Ravens have stored up a bunch of AFC tie-breakers with their season sweep against the Steelers and their head-to-head victories over the Jets and Texans.
This is certainly no time for doom and gloom — since the Ravens have a favorable late-season schedule and are in very good position to control their divisional destiny — but it's fair to ask how they could look so imposing against their toughest opponents and look so helpless the following weekend after three of those uplifting victories. The only time they didn't come crashing back to earth was after the Jets game, and that was the bye week.
Since that raises questions about the ability of the Ravens to play with the same focus and intensity against less formidable teams, it's probably fair to take them to the team's minister of motivation — Ray Lewis — but don't expect to be greatly enlightened.
"This is what I tell the guys every year," Lewis said. "I look at the whole schedule, and you can go through the whole schedule and you can point out, 'We should win this one. We might not win this one. We should win this one. We might not win this one.' And all of those things that you said you might not do, it always goes the opposite. Every year.
"There's probably not one person around here with a microphone or a camera that picked us to sweep Pittsburgh. There's probably not one person who picked us to lose to Jacksonville or Tennessee or Seattle, but it happens, because that's the business. That's the irony of sports, that you come in and on any given Sunday you can win or you can lose."
It's pretty hard to argue with that, because there's enough parity in the NFL to make any team vulnerable to an ambush. Just about every strong playoff contender — except the Packers and 49ers — has lost a game it was supposed to win. The problem with the Ravens is that it is starting to look like a pattern instead of a set of isolated events.
Harbaugh clearly isn't much for living in the past. He generally steers the conversation back to the particulars of the most recent game and tries to refocus as quickly as possible on the next one, which is what he did again during his Monday news conference. The Seahawks won because the Ravens made a bunch of uncharacteristic mistakes and didn't execute their offense particularly well.
"So you play better football, you win games like that,'' he said. "That goes to all of us. That's what we have to do. We have to coac h better … we have to play better … and we'll win those three football games. But we've won some other football games that people didn't expect us to win against some really good football teams. So tie the psycology together on that for me. I don't have time to be looking at that. We're going back to football. We'll study the football, as a football team. We'll have our answers in-house. We'll have our answers, that will be football-related answers, and we'll come out to play on Sunday."
No doubt, Harbaugh knows that there are some lessons to be learned from those losses that aren't going to be found in a playbook. He also knows that those who ignore history — even in sports — are doomed to repeat it.
He also knows that is a subject for a different week, because the Ravens should have no trouble recognizing what they're up against on Sunday against the 6-3 Bengals or what lies ahead five days after that.
If the Ravens take care of business and reclaim a share of first place in the AFC North, then knock the stuffing out of the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, Harbaugh will have 10 days to figure out how to avoid another letdown against the last-place Browns in Week 13.
He might just need a crash course in psychology. To get the Super Bowl, the Ravens will have to win the mind games, too.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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